Santa Claus is ubiquitous this time of year — or at least at a mall near you. It’s Christmas time, the end of the year, and the time for giving and receiving joyfully. At least, that’s the way it’s intended to be.
But when the holidays roll around, so too does the dilemma of “the Santa Question” — especially if you have a child in the 8-to-12- year-old range.
Kids these ages are the ones who may have grown aware of what’s going on around them. They may be silent about their Santa doubts for quite some time, or they may come right out and ask you if you’re Santa Claus. What will you do? Do you believe, huh? Do you believe?
Some parents who want to preserve the wonder of the season may waffle. They might say, “Oh, I believe in Santa Claus and I’ll always believe in Santa Claus!” Other parents will struggle with the morality of, well, telling an extended lie to their kids and wondering if they should extend it further. Some parents never bring Santa into their homes at all.
The Santa Mythology
The origins of the Santa mythology go back to the era of the Roman Empire. There really was a Turkish monk named St. Nicholas. He was admired for his piety, kindness and secret gift giving. He became the subject of many legends which spread widely throughout Europe, especially in Holland where he became known as Sinter Klaas.
According to history.com, Santa in the United States evolved from Dutch families in New York who would gather to honor the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death. But it was the American writer Washington Irving who helped to popularize St. Nicholas in his 1809 book, The History of New York. By the 1840s, American newspapers were running wild with advertisements for Christmas. Santa Claus was a hit. And kids everywhere loved believing.
Santa Claus Now
Today, when kids are 3 or 4, many parents tell them about a jolly, round man with a white beard who dresses all in red and lives in the North Pole with toy-building elves. His name is Santa Claus and they dress up their kids to go get photos with him each December. They tell their kids that Santa likes good behavior from children and that you do not want to get on his naughty list. They promise that on Christmas Eve, under cover of darkness, this man, this Santa Claus, will sneak into their home to deliver presents.
For young children who trust their parents explicitly, this all must be true … otherwise why would parents do this? Why get the Christmas tree, put out the milk and cookies and go through all of this fuss if it’s not true?
So, when children begin to doubt Santa’s existence, parents can get tripped up in their responses for varying reasons.
Laying the Foundation
Many parents participate in the Santa story as a way of laying a bedrock for belief and mystery in their kids. Christmas in Christian homes is the celebration of Jesus’s birth.
If you tell a young child that Christmas is about baby Jesus’s birth in a manger they will willingly believe you. At the same time, if you tell a young child that a happy man who laughs, “Ho-ho-ho” is coming to bring them presents while they’re sleeping, they will believe you.
It’s magical thinking and it’s normal in everyday life, especially between the ages of 5 and 8. Kids in these ages believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, flying carpets, magic beans and even that stepping on a crack may break your mother’s back. But then something happens around the age of 8 or a little older. Kids start to understand about physical impossibilities and they learn for themselves — possibly without saying so — that the Santa story can’t be real.
Is it Harmful to Children?
Research suggests that kids tend to figure out the truth about Santa on their own, usually peaking around age 12 when a kid is brave enough to tell his parent what he knows.
For parents worried about “the lie,” there’s no cause to believe your child will distrust you for engaging in Santa mythology.
“There’s no evidence that finding out the truth about Santa causes kids any distress or makes them doubt whether or not they can trust their mom or dad,” says Jacqueline Woolley, Ph.D., professor of psychology and Director of the Children’s Research Lab in Austin, Texas. Kids are resilient and can handle and even enjoy figuring out what’s really going on. They “get” if you get joy out of the Santa myth and will even begin to take part in the fun.
And magical thinking never goes away completely. Many adults believe in ghosts, aliens, unusual theories, you name it. But what about spirituality as truth for kids? Can a magical belief in Santa get mixed up with the question about baby Jesus during Christmas? Yes. So untangling the two ideas is cause for investigating a child’s innate belief system. After all, we don’t place a molding of Santa Claus in our nativity scenes.
Spirituality Tied to Happiness
“Science has revealed a vivid picture of inborn, natural spirituality in children, with clear implications for how parents and other adults can support the development of that spirituality,” says Lisa Miller. Miller is a popular speaker and the bestselling author of several books including The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (St. Martin’s Press; 2015). Miller’s book delves into a landmark 2015 study out of the Journal of Religion and Health from Columbia University in New York. Miller was the lead researcher. Her team learned that for children, happiness, grit and persistence actually go hand in hand with a deeper asset: spirituality. Her research, spanning more than 20 years, shows that the single most powerful protection against depression and suffering is a spiritual self.
Can belief actually make you happier?
“We know now that there is nothing more profoundly beneficial to children than to foster their innate spirituality; this is monumentally important information for all parents to have and use,” Miller says.
Furthermore, Miller’s research over the past seven years provides a level of certainty that any sort of spirituality becomes a source of health and thriving for kids. To that end, a lack of spirituality can be a source of suffering.
“I know childhood spirituality to be a powerful truth that is incontrovertible yet strangely absent from our mainstream culture,” Miller says. “That ‘children are so spiritual’ is not merely anecdote or opinion, be it mine or anyone else’s. It is an established scientific fact,” she adds.
From Santa to Jesus
No matter what questions your children ask you, “Is Santa real?” “Is Jesus real?,” it is very important, Miller says, not to turn away from difficult “why” questions. Your kids want to know what you think and what it might mean to you. And as a guidepost related to research, Miller says to consider the science of the matter.
“Spiritual children have a sense of inner worth, a sense of the lasting, higher sacred self, much bigger than the day’s win or defeat,” she says. So, any opportunity to believe doesn’t have to be thwarted when they are little by grown-up cynicism.
Wrapping it All in One Big Gift
Most adults remember discovering the truth Santa Claus; it is an amazing realization and a rite of passage. Adults also remember their experiences with spirituality, going to church, etc. In raising kids, Miller reminds about what’s most important when it comes to innate belief, spirituality and a child’s magical thinking.
“What is important is the connection to something larger than the individual,” Miller says. “It’s not knowing all of the answers, but establishing a ‘spiritual dialogue’ that creates a platform for the discussion of spiritual issues, concepts and questions that matters,” she adds.